Category: Language

Sam Hill

“What the Sam Hill is going on ’round here?”

‘What the Sam Hill’ is a relatively well known phrase that may not be used quite as much as it was in the earlier 20th century. And I was day-dreaming and thinking about that phrase this morning and came up with the etymology of the phrase. Rather out of the blue I might add. So I decided to poke about on the Internet and see if my theory is right.

Well the closest thing to an explanation of the phrase that I came across was this excerpt from a book. Out of four explanations, none of them is all that convincing.

So here’s my simple etymology of the phrase ‘what the Sam Hill’:
Fancy Englishmen in the Victorian era would say “What the devil?” much like we would say “What the hell?” or “What the heck?” when surprised or confused. OK that is a given. So I believe that instead of ‘devil’ people sometimes said “What the Samael?” Samael (sam-ay-ehl) is the proper name sometimes give to the Devil or the “king of demons” in old literature and some pagan or wiccan studies. So – if someone were to say “What the Samael are you doing?” they could easily have been misunderstood as saying ‘Sam Hill’. Try saying Samael and then Sam Hill. Sounds very close. Especially if you slur a bit as if you’ve been drinking. Which fancy Englishmen did sometimes.

So there you go: the officially unofficial and completely reasonable explanation of the history of the phrase. You’re welcome.

Hong Kong Tales: Embarrased at lunch

For the past couple of days two of our big bosses are in Hong Kong visiting and attending meetings and such. Being the nice guys that they are, they invited the entire office out to lunch at a fancy / expensive dim sum restaurant yesterday at City Hall. We had two huge tables full of people. We ordered dim sum from the ladies pushing the funny little trolleys around and they would hand us baskets of yummy goodness. It was fun and the food was really good. OK, so that’s the location.

Now for the setup. A week or so ago, a friend and co-worker showed me a pair of tiny red shoes with funny stitched tiger faces on the toes and little whiskers that stuck out. She said that they were called “tiger shoes” and she had a friend send her the pair from the mainland. She told me it was very traditional and nice to get a baby a pair of tiger shoes. They were cute but odd looking. So the other day I pass by a store that seemingly has two names (Goods of Desire and Delay No More are both displayed in huge letters) and carries lots of odd clothes and accessories. I notice in their display window that they have adult size tiger shoes. How cool is that? And then I forgot about it.

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Why is it hard?

That’s a bit personal isn’t it?  Well it has to do with blood flow and… what?  No?  Oh I had no idea.  Yeah that does make more sense, I suppose.  OK, yeah… we’ll go with that.

Learning a foreign language, any foreign language, is hard.  However, languages which share a common root language are much easier to learn once you learn one of them.  For example, people who speak American can easily pick up Spanish, French, Italian or British.  They all share the same root language (Latin or something).

The same seems to be true for other roots too.  People who speak Cantonese seem to be easily successful in learning Mandarin while native Mandarin speakers generally could care less about learning Cantonese.  A lot of this comes from having a similar written language.  Although most of China uses Simplified Chinese script, the southern areas of China including Hong Kong use Traditional Chinese script.  And while most southern Chinese speak Cantonese, people from Taiwan speak Mandarin and use Traditional Chinese. Therefore our one transplant employee from Taiwan only took about six months to learn Cantonese because they shared the same written language and same root.  The same would be true of any native American speaker who moves to South or East L.A. or Miami.  They would pick up Spanish in no time at all if they cared to and lived long enough.

Another No-No I’ve found with learning languages seems to be trying to learn two new languages at the same time.  Even though Cantonese and Mandarin are of the same root, it doesn’t matter much because their root is not the same as the root of my native language.  Learning Mandarin from a class once a week and picking up little fragments of Cantonese a few times a week make for some very confusing translations.  Add to that trying to learn the Traditional Chinese written script at the same time and we have a recipe for headaches.  Plus I have one other glaring problem that keeps me from my true linguistic potential: I’m American.

Americans wallow in the isolationist thinking that if you don’t speak English then you don’t count.  We are a one-language-culture and proud of it in most cases.  Most conversations I have had with groups of people back home involving things about China (or Japan or anything remotely sounding Asian) generally had one person being goofy and saying something like “Ching chang chong”.  Before I moved to Hong Kong, I know I have done this a few times myself.  It’s in our human nature to be afraid of things we don’t understand and make fun of them lest we curl up into a ball in tears.  It’s also how we keep from learning.

I remember a time when I actually thought: “If you’re going to live in America then learn the damn language!” while punching my fist in the air with righteous indignation.  I imagine that the locals here sometimes feel the exact same way.  I just can’t understand when they’re making fun of me.  So instead of being a complete asshole, I am trying to break out and learn the language.  I know that I can never be fluent but I’m at least trying and the people here seem to enjoy that.  At least it gives them something else to make fun of me for other than being a gwai lou.

And now for something completely similar

I had my first language class today at work. And considering my previous post on learning Cantonese, you would think that was the subject of the class. I would. But it wasn’t. It was for Mandarin. Which could make things very confusing. Especially considering how similar Cantonese and Mandarin are. They are both Chinese, but Mandarin is the national language that all Chinese are supposed to adopt and Cantonese is the language of people in Southern China and all of Hong Kong. In American terms though, it’s more different than a Boston’er trying to communicate with a Louisiana Cajun.

The reason I signed up for a Mandarin class though is because my company is paying for half the tuition. Plus I figured it might still help with my job and maybe in learning Cantonese as well. My wife was invited to attend at the discounted price as well so we were both in there trying to sound out weird words. There were five of us total in the class, which made things a little difficult when we were asked to pair off and repeat the conversations we were learning.

Anyway, one class means I know as little as I did when I started. I should probably know more but… it’s hard to remember.

Thousands of years of culture…

I’m in YOUR country, butchering YOUR language!

Thousands of years of culture wash down the drain as my co-workers attempt to help me learn Cantonese. It’s a very confusing language and even more confusing to read and write. And as hard as it is, it finally gives me the perspective I’ve always lacked to understand why people say English is the hardest language to learn. More on that some other time. So why am I trying to learn Cantonese? Simple. That is what they speak here in Hong Kong and southern China.

However the national language of the People’s Republic of China is now Mandarin so that’s what most people here are trying to learn. I’ve noticed though that people who know Cantonese seem to have an easier time with learning Mandarin later than the other-way-around. Chinese is a tonal language meaning that you can see the same word in many different tones and it means something completely different each time you change the tone. It seems to be debatable but Cantonese seems to have anywhere from five to nine different tones depending on who you ask. The most common I have seen is six. Mandarin has four. So it seems that Cantonese is the harder language to learn. I’m guessing Mandarin must be comparitively easy to a Hong Kong’er.

Anyway, I’m not going to get too in depth here. There are plenty of sites out there that can better explain the minor and major differences between the Chinese languages and frankly, I’m probably not the guy you want to be getting your facts from anyway.

Suffice it to say that my pronunciation of many a Cantonese word or phrase has garnered anything from praise to bewildered stares to gasps of shock followed by giggles. That last response means I accidently said something “naughty”. Hee hee.

Here’s an awesome resource for learning Cantonese if you are interested: Learn Cantonese!

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